They say revolutions happen quickly and indeed, it has been just six years since Rob and Leen, “The Scumbags of Rotterdam,” opened Schorem. Their 6-chair, men-only shop was an immediate sensation. Their unique personalities, classic barber shop style and devotion to haircuts from the 50’s and 60’s took Europe and then the world by storm.
Today, their haircut posters are legendary, their shows pack 2500-seat theaters from Australia to Sweden, their lovingly crafted old school products sell in the thousands and their inked, bearded, straight talking, rock and roll, no BS attitude is a barbering world ethos.
The pair sat down with me during a 30-minute break in their frantic schedule at Orlando in June, minutes before hitting the stage for another jammed performance.
I away love to know how great barbers got started, and true to their blue collar image, each is self-taught.
“I started after high school,” says Leen, tall, bespectacled and full-bearded “I was 15 and my brother was already doing hair. I had to have some work, so I was in there washing hair and doing everything an apprentice does, but I also started learning how to cut hair, and I was really good at it. It was appealing and I loved the interaction with people.”
Rob started out in his northern Holland hometown after leaving high school, cutting hair for the musicians and artists who made up his social group. The path to Schorem started for Rob when he fell in love.
“I had this girl,” he recalls, “and she moved to the south because she wanted to go to school for acting, so I followed and looked for a job.”
“One day I walked into this shop and there was this guy standing on a stool putting little shampoo bottles on a shelf. He was thin and had long hair in braid dyed black and he was just about the gayest guy I ever saw in my whole life. It was super funny to me.”
Rob didn’t get the job, but “I spent the whole day there talking, and we laughed so hard. It was part of a franchise, so they gave me the number for the headquarters and I got into one of their other shops.”
A few months later, “I was at a hair show and I saw Leen again and we ripped the place apart! We got drunk and made fun of the of the hairdressers on the stage,” he remembers. From that time, “we never left each other.”
Leen says: “The way he works and the way I work is similar and we never saw anybody cut hair the way we cut hair.”
“We turned the way of working with hair upside down,” Rob agrees. “The technique I learned on the streets, I never saw anybody do it, and when I walk into his shop and he’s doing it the same way and I was like ‘Where did you learn that?’ and he said, ‘ I taught myself.” I said “I cut like that, and I taught myself!’ Maybe that is where the whole idea of Schorem was born.
Besides their posters (more on that later) the Schorem shop became instantly well known for its meticulous devotion to classic barbering gear. The shop uses two chairs that are at least 100 years old, a lather machine that goes back to the 1870’s, and a now world-famous mirrored art-deco cabinet, a showpiece the many photographers who visit Schorem alas want to work into the shot. It’s a French Art Deco piece from 1890, which they found in a Belgian antique shop after being steered there by a relative.
After seeing it in the store, Rob returned to Leen, who was in the car. “My face, it was very happy and he was like, ‘Rob, we have to bargain.’ This woman, we scared the shit out of her. She thought she was going to be robbed and we were like ‘We heard about this barber cabinet.’ And there it is, in mint condition, a cabinet that is 120 years old and my face just like..(jaw drops). The only thing I could say was ‘I don’t like it,’ because Leen still had to bargain.”
Finding the cabinet “that was the turning point in the whole shop,” Leen said.
“It’s a very important part,” Rob agrees. “We are very honest that it is our shop, but we stole every idea from around the world. We love the American barber shop.”
The classic American shop of the 50’s is the inspiration for the now famous Schorem posters, which launched Schorem to social media stardom and demonstrated the pair’s marketing (and psychological) insight.
“We found that a successful barber shop is not just the haircut. It is about understanding the psychology of a guy in general,” Rob told me during our interview. He said many barbers forget that “the barbershop has always been for the average Joe. We forgot they were lost (in modern times), looking at magazines with male models who were perfect with perfect bodies and the jawline chiseled from marble, and they had to take this magazine to this beautiful girl and say, “Hey, I want my hair like this.”
Leen and Rob decided to save men the embarrassment and take pictures of great haircuts on ‘average Joes.’ “These guys are your friends, the people you meet in bars, so (having the posters on the wall means) you can point and go, ‘Hey, man, can I have that?’ That was the best thing! And we didn’t know shit about photography or Photoshop, so we made the most human posters possible. No models.”
The honesty of the posters made Schorem an internet sensation and they sell thousands. To this day in the Schorem shop, custom posters display the 22 haircuts available. “If you don’t see it on the wall, you are in the wrong place,” Leen says.
True to their honest ethos, Leen says “it doesn’t matter” if posters or products or cabinets go viral. “We make these things without a purpose. We just do everything that we think that we like. So it does not matter if it goes viral, and if you think like that, then it is easier.”
Rob tells me the same goes for their hugely popular stage shows. “I feel like a complete moron on stage. When they asked us to do a hair show, we were like, ‘We don’t have flashing lights we don’t have models, we are just guys from the streets.’”
Keeping their image honest and BS-free takes effort, he says. “It is hard. We don’t want to blow smoke up our asses because Schorem is far from the best barbers. We have been friends for long and we see how absurd it is that we ended up on stage, because we are really a little bit of screw-ups.”
“We go on stage and go, ‘How did we end up here? We just own a little barber shop!’ “We realize we are not afraid to screw up anymore. So we just hug each other and we say ‘OK, let’s have some fun.’ We try to take the feeling from the barber shop to the stage.”
Social media success was almost an accident, the pair told me. Their advice for up and coming barbers is “be honest” and avoid filters and Photoshop. “Make sure you have beautiful photos, make sure you do it at one recognizable point, so when people are scrolling through their feed and see this one shot, it makes them say “Oh, these guys posted that.”
“Social media has gotten so big, and it’s hard,” he added. “Be sure you have a personality in everything you post, make sure people like what you are doing, that you are not pushing it on them.
Leen’s take is simple enough: “I’m not a social media guy at all. I don’t like social media.”
The next challenge for the dynamic pair was a custom product they named Reuzel. They started out with a red water-based and green oil-based sheen and added a heavier blue water-based tonic (“like barbers used to use,” Rob said) and a pink oil-based. “The water-based means you can put it in as a gel. It looks like a wax, but you can rinse it out as a gel, and the oil-based product needs buildup, so the more it gets in your hair, the better.”
“All the tonics used to be made by the barber himself,” Rob said. “There were all these secret formulas and I love that shit!”
The expansion and ideas never stop. “ If we do a new-school product, there always has to be an old-school product. Now we’ve come out with two: Geek Guys in pomade class, a fiber; and a matte product, Matte Clay Pomade. We needed them for a looser look.
Shaving cream “that smells like grandpa,” Rob laughs, is another new product. What he means by that, he says, is the cream has a rich aroma that’s reminiscent of soap and tobacco, “like you’d smell when you went to kiss grandpa.”
Leen: “We have beard foam that acts as a deodorizer, and we have a degreasing formula because there was a lot of asking about cleaning up oil-based products. We have a beard balm that acts more like a conditioner.”
I asked about best sellers and Rob says, “I would say the pink because that is my favorite product, together with the grooming tonic, but we know our best seller is the blue, but the fiber and the clay are breathing down blue’s neck!”
So what is in the future for two of the hottest barbers on the scene today?
“We are working on a project that has never been done before,” Rob says. “A DVD that is only partially including us; it is going to be cool shit and we are going to raise money with it to make sure kids that are born in prison or born in poverty have a chance to get an education in barbering or whatever. It is the biggest project we have ever done and you will be hearing more about it.”
I love to ask for final thoughts and I had two for these world travelers: one, what are their favorite places?
ROB: “Dublin! I am a sucker for Ireland. I love the people, love the hospitality, love the Guinness! Ireland is it for me.”
Leen: “I just went to Tuscany and that is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.”
Secondly, how has their success has impacted them?
Rob says it still takes them by surprise. “It was never planned.”
“But the best thing was when this older guy comes up to us in Canada and says, ‘Boys, I have had a barber shop for forty years, and the last 15 years have been so bad that I was getting close to bankruptcy. Then you guys started your shop and all of a sudden I got these kids coming in asking for haircuts, and for the first time in 20 years I took my family on holiday.’ And he had tears in his eyes. We don’t realize the impact this little barber shop has. That is the best story I ever heard.”
Leen adds, “That is one of the reasons we are on stage, because we did not want to be on stage (at first). But so many people tell us they are inspired by us, and we are still having fun on stage.”
“And that is why we do it.”